The Portrait Series menu at Karlsruhe’s Electric Eel is an intriguing experiment and a tribute to the bar’s cherished regulars. Owner and Chief Lifestyle Officer Craig Judkins tells me the story of his unusual new menu based around faces and personalities.
Forget street art, forget Etsy, and forget Silicon Valley – the place to find true creativity these days is a bar menu. And I don’t mean the drinks on the menu, either. I’m talking about the menu itself. Bars are using their menus for much more than just telling you which drinks you can order. Whether they’re based on architecture, or Pantone colors, or even different perfumes, unusual bar menus are increasingly, well…usual.
Amid this worldwide rush for new menu concepts, the latest menu from Karlsruhe’s Electric Eel – named The Portrait Series – is all the more remarkable. It’s straightforward, not esoteric or snobbish, and yet it’s entirely original. Each drink on the menu is based on one of Electric Eel’s regular customers.
The Portrait Series Brings the World to Karlsruhe
“To me it’s just natural,” says Electric Eel owner and self-styled Chief Lifestyle Officer, Craig Judkins. “This bar belongs to [the regulars] as much as it belongs to me, maybe even to them more…Some of these people were here a long time before I showed up with all these weird ideas,” he says. Even after more than a decade in Karlsruhe, it seems the Iowa-born Judkins is aware he’s still a newcomer by local standards.
The Portrait Series menu manages to be both local and international, with each recipe created by a different European bartender. The list of six contributors spans Stuttgart to Stockholm, and includes Sven Lukas (Truffle Pig), Patric Glaubke (Penny & Bill, Reisen Bar), Jonas Hald (ex-Le Petit Coq), Pierre-Marie Bisson (Milk & Honey), Alastair Burgess (Happiness Forgets, Original Sin) and Hyacinthe Lescoët (Les Grands Verres). Judkins didn’t have to look far to find eager bartenders. “These are all just friends of ours who we’ve come to know over the years of visiting bars and going to events around Europe,” he says.
A Picture’s Worth 100 Words and a Cocktail
Each bartender was given a portrait-style photograph of one of Electric Eel’s regulars: Julius, Jörn, Sophie, Denise, Irma, and Kurt. They then had to make a drink based on that person without any other information besides the name and photo. The presentation of the menu is the most intriguing part of the whole experiment, not least because of the skilful photography of longtime Electric Eel collaborator, Sebastian Heck. The menu shows drinkers the names and photos that inspired each drink, along with the bartender’s rationale. The interpretation of the pictures can be even more surprising than the drinks themselves – each bartender’s assumptions about their subject are mini stories, encompassing everything from piracy on the high seas, to wild revolutions and Mad Men.
As for the drinks, their appeal goes well beyond the six regulars they’re named after. “I have two favorites. The Kurt and the Julius,” says Judkins. Kurt is a mix of rum, sherry, maple syrup, and walnut bitters, made to suit a man who reminded Alastair Burgess of a pirate.
On the other hand, “Julius is sort of out there and I couldn’t imagine how it was really going to taste, but I think it shows you how much of a pro Patric [Glaubke] is,” says Judkins. Julius is made of Scotch, sweet vermouth, Crémant sparkling wine, clove and Seville orange syrup, and Fernet Branca. It’s an unusual mix, but Judkins says it really works. “It’s perhaps my overall favorite,” he admits.
Electric Eel is its Regulars
The real triumph of The Portrait Series menu is the way it indelibly links the bar with its regular customers. Bars like to say they’re focused on their regulars, but so many top cocktail spots rely just as much on drinks tourism, or gimmicky events, to get people through the door. Hotel bars are geared towards transitory visitors by design. In contrast, The Portrait Series is no empty gesture. It’s a fun acknowledgement of their enthusiasm, but it also turns Electric Eel’s regulars into an integral and tangible part of the bar. They don’t just buy the drinks – they are the drinks.
“First and foremost we’re a neighborhood spot,” says Craig Judkins. And for him, it’s local opinion that matters. “When people tell me day after day they think our place is beautiful, or that it’s the best place in town or it’s surprising to them that they found such a place in Karlsruhe, it is very satisfying,” he says.
Clearly, making the regulars central to the menu was no accident. But what about the idea of using photographs as the starting point? There’s a story behind that concept, too. “Electric Eel has a strange concession – officially it’s a ‘gallery with bar’, so we have to have exhibits on a regular basis,” Judkins says. Every year, Electric Eel hosts four or five different shows, sometimes featuring artwork by regulars. The bar became a favorite hangout for “urban sketchers,” who would do drawings of regulars. “We had a growing collection of those for a couple of months,” says Judkins. “So our regulars are often woven in with the exhibitions at our space.” From there, it was a short leap to immortalizing them in liquid, as well as portrait, form.
As Chief Lifestyle Officer, Judkins doesn’t get the opportunity to make many of the drinks in The Portrait Series himself. He works the day shift, pouring coffee, and an occasional aperitif. “I leave the bartending to the younger people,” he says. “I prefer to be on the other side of the bar, chatting with guests, welcoming visitors and playing records.”
Let’s be honest: Chief Lifestyle Officer sounds like every extrovert’s dream job. Still, with someone focused solely on conversation, music, and mood, it’s no wonder Electric Eel inspires such loyalty from its regulars. I can’t wait to see what they cook up together next.
Bildquelle: v. o. n. u. Electric Eel, Sebastian Heck